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West Papua
United States
Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 186 - August 1988

Beirut and Soweto leap from the headlines every day. But who has heard of West Papua or Chittagong?
The battle of native people for cultural (and often physical) survival in both the Third World and industrial societies is a little known reality. Here are some of the global flashpoints of native struggle.

To read the story from each country, click on
one of the countries highlighted below.
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United States Canada Bangladesh United States Canada Chile Guatemala United States Australia West Papua Bangladesh Chile

UNITED STATES[image, unknown] Big Mountain

Paul Conklin / Camera Press Background: About 150,000 Navajo live in the Big Mountain area of Arizona on land bordering Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. In the middle of the Navajo's 17 million acres is a 640,000 acre Hopi reservation. The Navajo and Hopi have peacefully shared a 1.8 million acre Joint Use Area (JUA) for years.

Aggression: A pro-development Hopi Tribal Council, with connections to the mining industry, initiated a lawsuit to gain title to the JUA. In 1974 the US Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act which stipulated that all Navajo (about 10,000) on the JUA would be relocated by 1986; so far 7,000 Navajo have been moved. The 40,000 acres set aside for resettlement are on the Puerco River - which was heavily contaminated by a 1979 nuclear waste spill. A legislated 90% reduction in Navajo livestock (mostly sheep) has severely affected the native economy and way of life.

Resistance: Thousands of Navajo families refuse to leave their ancestral and sacred lands. Barbed wire fences, threats of forced removal and offers to sweeten the deal have failed to budge them. The Indians have gone to court to argue the relocation is in violation of their religious freedom because their land is their religion. The one concession so far is the provision that Navajo elders can remain in the JUA until 1995.


GUATEMALA[image, unknown] Army Atrocities

Background: Guatemala's Indians make up nearly 60% of the country's population. They have come under increasing pressure from landless peasants, rainforest cattle ranchers, mineral and timber companies and a ruthless military that views native highland areas as ripe for the plucking.

Aggression: In the late 1970s, popular movements gained in strength causing Guatemala's military to turn on its own people. The army launched search and destroy missions against the guerrilla opposition in native territory. Since then an estimated 100,000 people have been killed, over 400 Indian villages destroyed. The Indian way of life - from traditional dress to an economy and religion based on growing maize (corn) - are being systematically degraded. The army's 'scorched earth' tactics are devastating the fragile rainforest.

Resistance: Many Indians have joined the guerrilla opposition (URNG) to Guatemala's 'Ladino' (Spanish) military hierarchy. The new Christian Democratic President, Vinicio Cerezo, promised to clean up the country's atrocious human rights record, but the military still controls Indian areas. Although massacres have stopped, individual killings and other human rights abuses continue. The 43,000 Indian refugees in Mexico are understandably reluctant to return home.


CANADA[image, unknown] Dene Nation

Background: The 15,000 Dene of Canada's Northwest Territories (NWT) centre their culture around hunting and trapping for subsistence and cash income. Treaties signed in 1899 and 1921 opened the area up to gold and oil exploration.

Aggression: In the early 1970s multinational oil companies planned to build a huge $8 billion oil pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley - straight through Dene territory. The Indians feared the pipeline would damage the fragile Arctic ecosystem and would attract thousands of southern whites - swamping the Dene's culture.

Resistance: In 1973, the Dene won legal claim (although not a political agreement) to 450,000 sq. miles of territory because they had used it from 'time immemorial'. A 1977 report by Justice Thomas Berger recommended the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline be postponed until Dene land claims were settled. The pipeline was cancelled. In a first step towards self-government a 1987 plebiscite divided the NWT and gave the Dene their own land in the west. A new tentative agreement gives the Dene rights to 74,000 sq. miles.


CHILE[image, unknown] Divide and Conquer

Background: Chile's 1 million Mapuche once controlled all of central and southern Chile. They now survive on 350 hectares scattered over 3000 isolated reserves. Under former president Salvador Allende's government, lost lands were regained.

Aggression: General Pinochet reversed Allende's reforms in the early 1970s. His intentions are clear from the title of his 1979 law: 'for the Division of the Reserves and the Liquidation of the Indian Communities'. If one Mapuche asks, reserve communal lands can be divided into private lots. Once divided, the lands cannot be reclaimed as Indian land. At least 70% of the Indian lands have been divided in this way. Resistance is risky: Mapuche leaders are arrested and sometimes killed.

Resistance: ADMAPU and the Mapuche Cultural Centres are active in organizing their people in both cities and on rural reserves. The organizations represent 1,350 communities, several of which are resisting division. Additional support comes from the Catholic Church, as well as labour and peasant organizations. There is little optimism things will improve until General Pinochet is forced from office.


BANGLADESH[image, unknown] Defend the Hills

Background: The Chittagong Hills in south-eastern Bangladesh cover 10% of country and are home to 600,000 indigenous people (about 1% of the population). The tribespeople have their own language, Buddhist religion and self-reliant agriculture. They are distinct from the majority of Muslim Bengalis. Yet the government is committed to opening up' the region to settlement and development.

Aggression: The Hill Tracts came under Bengali control after independence, ending the 'special status' enjoyed by the hill people under the British. By the early 1960s, the Kaptai hydro-electric project had displaced 100,000 tribal people. Resource exploitation and Bengali settlement have reduced the tribal people from 90% to 50% of the area's population since 1947. The Bangladeshi army killed an estimated 3,500 native people in the Hill Tracts in the early 1970s. Human rights abuses continue. Some 50,000 tribespeople today live in exile in India.

Resistance: Jana Sanghati Samity is the political organization representing the various hill tribes. Shanti Bahini, its armed wing, has been actively resisting the Bangladesh army for the past 10 years.


WEST PAPUA[image, unknown] Papuans Fight Integration

Background: The 800,000 Melanesians of West Papua base their religion (animism), village culture and subsistence economy (hunting and small scale agriculture) on a reverence for the land.

Aggression: In 1962 the Netherlands handed West Papua over to Indonesia and in 1969 the region became the 26th Indonesian state. Since then more than 150,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian army in an attempt to 'integrate' the native population. Integration involves: replacing local authorities; discouraging communal living and economic sharing; cutting people's hair and forcing them to wear Western-style clothes. Up to 13,000 families a year are relocated to work on cash-crop plantations. The cornerstone of Indonesian colonial policy is 'transmigration' - a grandiose scheme to settle up to 1 million Indonesians in West Papua - thus swamping the native population.

Resistance: Hostility to the Indonesian military is almost universal in West Papua. Since 1965, the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeki) has waged a military and political struggle with the Indonesian government. The OPM has an estimated 30,000 active members and controls about a quarter of the country.


AUSTRALIA[image, unknown] Deaths in Custody

Background: Australia's 200,000 Aborigines marked 1988 - the 200th year since British settlement - as a year of mourning. Both Federal and State governments refuse to recognize Aboriginal land rights or claims to self-government.

Aggression: Aborigines are jailed 14 times more often than whites. Since 1980, at least 100 Aborigines have died in police custody. Reports of the Aboriginal deaths are riddled with discrepancies and there are indications that some evidence has been fiddled while other facts have been ignored. Police and prison authorities have been negligent in providing medical aid. Many of those killed were Aboriginal activists. No disciplinary action has been taken against police suspected in the killings.

Resistance: The Committee to Defend Black Rights has acted to document and publicize cases of Aborigines who have died under suspicious circumstances. In 1987, the committee succeeded in getting the Australian government to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the deaths.

Sources: Cultural Survival Quarterly, IWGIA Yearbook 1987, Survival International Review, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Amnesty International, Canada-Asia Working Group.

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New Internationalist issue 186 magazine cover This article is from the August 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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